July 16 — 12:35 pm, 2019

Yoon Byun believes in instilling confidence in her students

Teachers are asked to "do the impossible, and you have to make it possible."

Makoto Manheim

Yoon Byun. (Photo: Saquoia Freeman, School District of Philadelphia)

“This is what I was meant to do, be a teacher in the city for the broken child.”

Despite saying this, Yoon Byun did not always want to be a teacher. She did, however, want to work with children. And this year, she was one of 60 winners of the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching.

In her 13-year career, Byun has taught most grades from kindergarten through 8th grade. She now teaches English language learners at Kirkbride Elementary in South Philadelphia and creates programs to support both students and their parents. 

Byun moved to the United States from Korea with her family when she was 4, and she said that during her upbringing in an immigrant household, there was not as much support for her as a student. In her experience, she said, immigrant parents tend to focus more on providing for their children rather than on helping them with schoolwork, which is hard for them because of the language barrier.

For her parents, who had been well off in Korea, it was difficult. Both of them suffered during South Korea’s 1997 financial crisis. Her father was a businessman and graduate of a prestigious Korean university; her mother, from a wealthy family, became a seamstress to make ends meet.

Her parents divorced when she was 8 years old. Moving between two households, she attended school in Norristown, Philadelphia, and Plymouth Meeting before enrolling in Temple University.

She originally was on a pre-med track, but switched to social work. She fell in love with teaching when, as part of her social work training, she did service learning at McKinley Elementary School in West Kensington. She switched the focus of her studies again, graduating with certification in both elementary and special education. 

It took five years to get her degree, because she had to work at the same time.

“My parents couldn’t afford to support me during my college years,” she said. “I survived on scholarships, grants, and kindness of others. Student teaching was tough, because you had to devote the entire half a semester to it without being able to work. I was literally [barely] making ends meet, and I am still paying off some student loans as of today.

“I told myself that, eventually, I would serve immigrant families and ESL communities. … I had to remember my goal to support the students and the parents.”

She subsequently earned a master’s degree in education and certification as a reading specialist from Cabrini College. In 2010, she earned a certification from Temple to teach English to speakers of other languages.

At Kirkbride, where student enrollment is overwhelmingly Latinx and Asian, she has created programs for teaching parents English and for helping students with homework after school. 

Her goal of supporting the children “who just needed the extra step forward – it’s all coming together,” she said.

She strongly believes that every student can and will learn, given the right resources and tools.  She has taught children from all sorts of family backgrounds, including those who live in neighborhoods with a lot of gun violence, those whose parents have two or three jobs, and homeless students.

Byun strives to find ways to support her students, including washing their clothes and cooking for them at times. She believes that teaching is not just about academics, but also the students’ social and mental care.

‘Their second home’

“Who do the students confide to? It’s the teacher, because that is their second home,” Byun said.

At the end of her email signature, she attaches a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

She lives by this mantra, she said.

Teaching “is definitely a job that takes so much out of you … but at the end of the day, the most rewarding part is seeing a student spell a word that they couldn’t before, or solve a math problem that they were struggling with, or even making a new friend,” Byun said. “You might not even see it, but you know in your heart that you did your best for them and shaped them.”

Byun’s first three years of teaching, she said, were certainly hard. She was in rough neighborhoods, and she felt like the children were crying for help. However, she found ways to support them. Byun spoke of “the importance of building bridges for students and allowing them to cross on their own and to know that there is something greater.”

“Just hope, a lot of them felt hopelessness,” Byun said.

Byun strives to help students realize their capabilities.

“When they are not at peace with themselves or at terms with their identity and what they are capable of, it is your job to get them to say at the end of the school year, ‘Yes, I can do it,’” she said.  “You can’t be career-ready until you love yourself for who you are, and you start sharing that and making sure that you grow in every way.”

Initially, Byun wanted to serve as her students’ compass. She wanted to lead students in the right direction without dictating things to them. Byun would set up a new goal every year to suit her students’ needs. But, over time, she realized she also needed to make sure that she built bridges to get her students where they needed to go – and not just to give them hope.

Byun said that in order to be able to help students achieve their potential, she needs to be able to build a relationship with them and have them trust her.

The importance of respect

“The greatest thing you can earn from students is respect, and them knowing that you genuinely care for them,” she said.

In Byun’s eyes, a teacher also needs to be a coach, a counselor, and an advocate in general.

“Teachers have to be the advocates for all the students,” she said.

Byun reflected on her time as a learning support teacher and being aware of her students’ needs, as well as the role that environmental factors play in her students’ classroom behavior. 

“Students in need are always crying for help,” she said.  “I always see my students as innately good, but something goes on in their environment [that makes them act out].”

Byun sets up her classroom in multiple centers and has the students teach each other. She creates the same assignment in the same classroom, but set up at different levels, depending on the student.

Teacher-centered classrooms do not nurture problem-solving skills or student initiative, she said. “Once they step outside of school, they need to be able to take what they learned and apply it to the world.”

She assigns certain students to be peer leaders, giving them specific roles to support other students.  

“Sometimes they listen to their peers more than their teachers,” she said, laughing.

Lastly, Byun believes in the importance of communication. Besides building trust, she wants to make sure that her students talk to her.

“I tell them, ‘even if you think you’re only a kid, you have a voice,’” she said. “Communication is so important. That builds community, where students can learn, that trust and respect.”

She tied the concept of communication back to trust.

“They’re not going to talk to you until you build respect and show them that you care,” she said.  “We as educators need to be sensitive about what’s going on altogether.”

One thing that Byun strongly believes in as a teacher is the value of high expectations. She shows students their academic portfolio that tracks their growth to let them see what they are capable of. 

Many students exceed their own predictions and expectations. She told them so much that they needed to believe in themselves that they would say to her, ‘You need to believe in yourself.’” 

Her goal is to instill confidence, especially for English learners. One of her students once told her, “I was the first ever to go to college … because of who chose to believe in me.”

Byun said her students’ growth goes beyond academics. “Especially the students who you thought would never go past a certain level,” Byun said. “They were learning other things that you didn’t know during the time period.”

When asked about a time her students surprised her, Byun talked about what happened when she went on maternity leave. She was originally planning a year-long project to make a book with her students over the course of the year, but she had to leave midyear due to her pregnancy. The students wanted to give her a gift, so they continued to make the book for her without the guidance of the teacher who filled in for her. The students led the project and made it themselves.  

The remarkable thing is that this was a “split grade,” with both 1st and 2nd graders. The District sometimes creates split-grade classrooms rather than smaller classes to save money when actual enrollment doesn’t match projections. Teaching the class required two different curricula and multiple teaching skills.

“They have you do the impossible, and you have to make it possible,” Byun said, laughing.

“One thing I tell my students is, ‘Don’t say impossible, say I am possible.’”

Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation. 

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